A deadly game of sardines, a man haunted by a random odd shoe, the karaoke party from hell… just some of the surreal tales that have graced Inside No. 9, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s award-winning anthology of black comedies which returns with a seventh series this week.
Macabre, funny and sometimes downright sinister, the show is like a modern-day version of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected, each episode a self-contained mini horror story linked only by the number 9, and each with a bizarre twist.
It won the Best Scripted Comedy BAFTA last year, has been described by TV critics as ‘hellishly good’, ‘deliciously dark’ and ‘endlessly inventive’, and has seen some of the biggest names in British TV queuing up for a role – from Keeley Hawes, Emilia Fox and Jessica Raine to Derek Jacobi, Jack Whitehall and Adrian Dunbar.
Pictured: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith with Emilia Fox. Inside No.9 returns for a seventh series
The show’s origins can be traced back to Bretton Hall college in West Yorkshire, where Reece and Steve met as drama students, along with Mark Gatiss, in the late 80s and bonded over their love of dark humour.
‘We had this strange crosssensibility where we all appeared to have had the same childhood watching the horror double bill on BBC2,’ says Reece.
That soon manifested itself in some bizarre student practical jokes. ‘If somebody went to the bathroom at a party, one of us would find the props to dress up as the murderous dwarf from the Donald Sutherland/Julie Christie movie Don’t Look Now,’ recalls Steve.
‘A kitchen knife, shoes on our knees and a red coat with a cape. When that person opened the door to come out they’d get quite a surprise. It’s still the kind of ritual we perform today.’
The trio stayed friends and memorably created four series of The League Of Gentlemen, the hit black comedy set in the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey, before going their separate ways, Mark to work on Doctor Who and Sherlock, Steve and Reece to create the horror-comedy series Psychoville.
The pair still share an office and live close to each other in north London, and when they’re working on Inside No. 9, they eat at the same restaurant every day. ‘We’ve exhausted the menu,’ laughs Reece.
Pictured: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. The new series is bursting with more big names, including Danny Mays, Sophie Okonedo, Jason Isaacs and Jessica Hynes
They’ve even drawn inspiration for the show from those lunches, according to Steve. ‘One day we listened to three friends at the next table arguing about the bill, and that became an Inside No. 9.’
After seven series you’d think they’d be running out of ideas, but their imaginations and collaborative powers are still as productive as ever.
‘I might suggest doing something about football, and that’s not on Reece’s radar,’ says Steve. ‘He might propose an episode about witch trial, which I don’t know as much about.’
At college we’d dress up as the murderous dwarf from the movie Don’t Look Now and scare people at parties
Reece adds, ‘Steve will want the structure right, but I might just think, “That’s funny” more instinctively.’ Steve chuckles, ‘I do the boring bits, he does the funny bits!’
The new series is bursting with more big names, including Danny Mays, Sophie Okonedo, Jason Isaacs and Jessica Hynes. The first episode reunites Steve and Reece with their old pal Mark Gatiss and also stars Motherland’s Diane Morgan.
‘Merrily, Merrily is about three friends who were together at college,’ explains Reece. ‘They’re on a pedalo trying to get to a bigger boat where a reunion party is supposed to take place, but they fall out.
Pictured: Jessica Raine. Steve and Reece say they have plenty of ideas for future episodes, and hope to reach at least a ninth series
‘The story looks at how some people attach great importance to their university days, while others have moved on.’
Later episodes in the series include one set in a very creepy classroom and Kid/Nap in which Danny Mays and Jason Isaacs play villains planning to snatch a financier’s wife. So what draws so many stars?
‘It’s beautifully written and very funny,’ said Derek Jacobi after starring as a truculent barrister approaching death, while Adrian Dunbar said, ‘Oh, all that lot in Line Of Duty want to be in it,’ after sending himself up as a pompous actor.
Luckily for them, Steve and Reece say they have plenty of ideas for future episodes, and hope to reach at least a ninth series.
‘That would be nice,’ says Reece. ‘Nine series of Inside No. 9 definitely has a ring to it.’
- Inside No. 9, Wed, 10pm, BBC2.